Mayor Tony Yarber's city shakeup continues as he has moved to terminate a municipal judge and is likely to appoint several new members to the Jackson Redevelopment Authority.
The seven-member Jackson Redevelopment Authority—a quasi-governmental agency that helps secure contracts and financing for economic-development projects—has several members with expired or soon-to-expire terms that Yarber must fill in the coming weeks.
Jennifer Johnson, whom Mayor Chokwe Lumumba appointed along with Kemba Ware and Michael Starks Sr., before his death in February, said in the meantime, JRA business remains at a standstill.
"I've been on the board for eight months and to say that progress is incremental is generous," she said.
Based on conversations with several individuals, it appears that the Yarber administration wants to get its board picks in place before moving ahead with business. That includes resolving a dispute between members of the Farish Street Group LLC, a real-estate management venture charged with luring businesses to Farish Street.
In late 2013, JRA broke ties with FSG and its principal investor, David Watkins, which touched off a mess of lawsuits between Watkins, JRA and other principals in the project. A mediation that had been scheduled for this week was postponed for 60 days because of what Watkins attorney Lance Stevens said were "positive developments" in the Farish saga.
Stevens would not confirm whether those developments included new JRA board members who would be loyal to the Yarber administration. He referred those questions to Jason Goree, a former employee of Watkins who is now the city's economic-development director.
Stevens would also not confirm whether there was a deal on the table for Watkins to step out of the picture, but said that Watkins is open to an agreement whose terms are mutually beneficial.
In addition, after stating at a public meeting that he lacked the ability to remove a judge from the municipal bench, Mayor Yarber moved to fire Judge June Hardwick over the weekend.
Hardwick confirmed to the Jackson Free Press this morning that she received a termination letter at her home the evening of Saturday, July 19. The letter was postmarked July 17 and dated July 16, the day Yarber put forth a pair of judicial nominees to the municipal court.
One nominee, Gerald Mumford, was approved unanimously. The second, former municipal Judge Bob Waller, was stalled on questions about whether the city could afford or had the room to accommodate two positions.
Hanging over that conversation was confusion about Hardwick, whom Yarber had publicly admonished for setting what he considered an insufficiently punitive bond amount in a murder case.
At the June 16 special meeting of the city council, Yarber said, "I don't have the ability to fire anybody," referring to judges, but added that he was expecting a resignation from one judge he did not name.
Speaking to the Jackson Free Press by phone this morning, Hardwick questioned whether Yarber's actions represented a violation of the separation of powers clause in the U.S. Constitution that prevents the concentration of too much power in one branch of government and keeps the various branches from encroaching on the powers of other branches.
"The mayor does not have a J.D. (law degree), never practiced law and never sat on the bench as a judge," Hardwick said. "My concern is for the people."
The disagreement began in May, when Hardwick set a $150,000 bond for 19-year-old Wilber Clay, who was arrested and charged with murder in the Mother's Day shooting death of 29-year-old Ebony Hervey. He has not paid the bond and is still in jail.
"We intend on ensuring that if you sit in a municipal judge seat in this city then the expectation is that you will value the lives and the families of those people who are affected by violent crimes by setting a bond that is appropriate in terms of that crime," Yarber told WJTV, "and $150,000 bond for a life that was taken ... we're not tolerating that."
Despite a Mississippi Supreme Court ruling that outlines nine factors that judges should consider when setting bonds, bond amounts are often ensnared in politics with judges wanting to setting harsher bonds for people accused of more serious crimes. In Mississippi, they have access to a general set of guidelines called a bond schedule, but Hardwick believes following those guidelines could violate a defendant's constitutional rights "because it takes a cookie-cutter approach" when judges should consider defendants' circumstances on a case-by-case basis when setting bonds.
Hardwick said she has not decided whether she would challenge her termination, but said that the Mississippi Bar Association, civil-liberties groups and citizens should have grave concerns about the constitutional issues of a member of the executive branch dictating orders to a sitting judge.
Matt Steffey, who teaches constitutional law at Mississippi College School of Law, says it's an open question. On one hand, municipal courts are "inferior courts" that were established by the Legislature, not the state Constitution. Steffey cites a 1999 Mississippi attorney general's opinion, which is not legally binding, that affirms mayors' authority to remove municipal judges.
At the same time, a higher court might agree that a mayor meddling in the day-to-day affairs of the municipal court represents a separation-of-powers conflict.
"We're in uncharted waters," Steffey said. "It depends on how the court sees the role of municipal judge."
City Hall spokeswoman Shelia Byrd does not allow administration officials to do live interviews. However, she emailed a statement from Yarber today: "Municipal judges serve at the will and pleasure of the Mayor. For this administration, public safety is a priority. As we move forward, we look to appoint judges who share our vision."